Turkey's 'Realm of Fear' A Former Judge Takes on Erdogan's Heavy Hand

Until recently, Emine Ülker Tarhan was a justice at the Court of Appeals in Ankara. But now she has discarded her robes and is aiming to take a political office. Prime Minister Erdogan, she alleges, is establishing a surveillance state and is "becoming more dictatorial every day."


There are days on which Emine Ülker Tarhan isn't constantly worried about bugs and wire taps. They are days when Tarhan, tall and blonde with metal-rimmed glasses, gets her 1964 VW Beetle out of the garage and puts on a CD by Zülfü Livaneli, the Turkish balladeer whose voice reminds her of "clear air."

And then are days, she says, when she feels like a character in George Orwell's tale of a surveillance state, "1984." That's when she sees the thought police on patrol, and when she is afraid to say the wrong word in her own home.

Today is one of those days. It's a Monday morning in the embassy district of the Turkish capital Ankara, and Tarhan, wearing a black blazer over a blue blouse, is sitting in a friend's law office, where the two are exchanging knowing glances. Could this office be bugged, too, they wonder? "Our country's government is becoming more and more dictatorial every day," says Tarhan. "This isn't paranoia."

It seems odd to hear this 48-year-old woman speaking as if she were at the mercy of a despotic government. Five weeks ago Tarhan, a career jurist, was herself a member of the country's power elite. She was a judge on the Court of Appeals in Ankara and, since 2006, the president of "Yarsav," a decidedly secular professional association of judges and prosecutors. But then, in early March, she stepped down from both posts and decided to go into politics.

'I Refuse to Play Along with This'

The reason for her decision, she say, is the increasingly open attempt by the Islamic conservative administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to destroy the independence of the Turkish judiciary. A closer look, says Tarhan, is enough to see that Erdogan is currently in the process of eliminating the separation of powers in Turkey. "If he gets his way, judges and public prosecutors will no longer serve as a check on the executive branch, but instead will become his agents. I refuse to play along with this."

The Turkish judiciary, of course, does not have a particularly strong reputation, neither domestically nor abroad. Many believe that judges and prosecutors feel less committed to the rights of the individual than to "protection of the state," and that they often hand down draconian prison sentences against supposed enemies of the state. Green Party politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit has characterized them as "terrible jurists." Many human rights activists see the Turkish judiciary as perhaps the biggest obstacle on the EU accession candidate's road to true democracy and freedom of opinion.

Tarhan disagrees with these assessments, pointing out that it isn't the judges but the politicians who ultimately make the laws. She adds that it is Erdogan's Islamic conservative governing party, the AKP, which bears the responsibility for Turkey's current criminal code -- a code that, for example, practically requires judges to lock up stone-throwing Kurdish youths for years.

Is Erdogan's Administration an Opponent of Freedom?

The real opponents of freedom, says Tarhan, are to be found in the ranks of the administration. And the administration, she says, has already begun to undermine the judicial system.

Tarhan was particularly alarmed by a law under which judges and public prosecutors are no longer to be called to account for abuses of office. The law is part of a set of legal reforms that also reconstituted the panels that appoint judges and prosecutors. This reform, Tarhan claims, gives preference to candidates who are agreeable to the regime.

"Compliant judges appointed by the justice minister can freely go about their business," she says. "But judges and prosecutors who are critical of the government are still being routinely wiretapped whenever the justice ministry feels it necessary."

A historic constitutional referendum in September made this possible. The Turkish people were to vote on whether their old constitution, dictated by the military junta of the 1980s, should be reformed. But from the outset, many Turks were troubled by the fact that the changes weren't just limited to the military's position in society. That of judges and prosecutors was also a focus of the constitutional revisions. Critics cautioned that Erdogan would use the reform of the judiciary to expand his power.

Today, there are few who would deny that he has been successful.

In his eighth year in office, on the eve of parliamentary elections slated for June 12, Erdogan remains more entrenched and unchallenged in his position than any Turkish politician since the days of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. Many have challenged him, but he has managed to sideline them all: the military officers who intimidated him in 2007 by launching the threat of a coup on the Internet; the prosecutors, who sought to ban his party in 2008; and the media, which reported on corruption within the AKP.

The generals seemed paralyzed as the government pushed forward an investigation against the suspected coup leaders, many of which landed in prison. Cartoonists who have tangled with Erdogan have been showered with libel suits; the media company Dogan was even threatened with billions in tax penalties. And in the judiciary, officials unwilling to toe the government line have been replaced en masse.

In 2010, for example, a colleague accused Ilhan Cihaner, a prosecutor, of "membership in an illegal terrorist organization." While investigating an Islamist organization, Cihaner had uncovered business ties between the organization and the governing party AKP. Soon afterwards, Cihaner himself landed in pretrial detention, and he was removed from the case.

In early March, journalists Ahmet ik and Nedim ener were arrested on terrorism charges. They had been investigating the growing influence of the Islamist Fethullah Gülen movement within the Turkish police. Tarhan's judges' association, Yarsav, was also described as a terrorist organization. "Just imagine," she says, "the prime minister even compared us with the PKK!" Bugs were installed in the offices of Yarsav at the instruction of the justice minister, but Tarhan wasn't surprised. "Sooner or later we'll all be spied on," she says.

A 'Realm of Fear'

Tarhan spoke of a "realm of fear" when she was invited to speak in the German state of Hesse in early April. When asked what was wrong in Turkey, she replied: "It's the deep state of the AKP."

In Turkey, the term "deep state" refers to the criminal ties among politicians, the judiciary and organized crime. The "Ergenekon" network, uncovered in 2008, which was allegedly planning to stage a coup against the Erdogan government, is considered a part of the "deep state." In Turkey's tense political climate, the claim that Erdogan's AKP has established a state within a state is seen as a monstrous accusation. But can it be proven? Or is simply a case of overblown rhetoric being used to garner support?

The election campaign began in Turkey last week. And after decades of decline, a party that was considered hopelessly outdated is suddenly in the ascendant: the Republican People's Party (CHP), founded by Atatürk himself, a melting pot of the old secular government elite that has been overrun by the dynamic Erdogan.

The CHP has its headquarters on the outskirts of Ankara, in a postmodern building with something that resembles a space capsule on the roof, meant to convey the image of modernity. The mood is buoyant inside the building, now that the CHP has gained a prominent and media-friendly candidate in Emine Tarhan. Party Chairman Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, nicknamed "Kemal Gandhi" because of his mild character, has just greeted her with great enthusiasm.

The now former Judge Tarhan, brushing a lock of hair out of her face, insists that she never wanted to become a politician. The many photographers embarrass her, and she is appalled by the posturing of many Turkish politicians.

But in light of an impending "dictatorship of the Erdogan clique," says Tarhan, she wants to campaign for a different and more modern Turkey. "In this country, religious leaders are now declaring women who have been raped to be partially culpable, because they showed too much cleavage. They see women as nothing but baby-making machines. Do you really think that I can just sit there and do nothing?"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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